3 min

Talking about our lives in the public service

Making the workplace safe and inclusive

Credit: Capital Xtra files

Decades ago, the federal civil service believed gays and lesbians were a threat to national security. Rumours circulated of a “fruit machine” developed to ferret out such subversive employees.

But in June, during National Public Service Week, Canadian Heritage, the department responsible for programs that celebrate heritage, culture and identity, published Out And About. The document talks of a work environment that is truly inclusive of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered employees.

The document’s roots extend back to 1997. Forty-five gay and lesbian employees of Heritage Canada came together to net-work. Basing their structure on other groups that struggled to ensure true employment equity in their department, the gay and lesbian committee decided to go beyond networking among themselves. Their aim was to guarantee their department would be truly responsive to them as proud and out employees. The group subsequently felt it was important to expand its own membershipto include bisexual and trans-gendered employees.

In 2001, six people from that group of 45 – Sylvie Giasson, Ève Gaboury, Daniel Cadieux, George Rigby, Pascal-Hugo Plourde and Patrice Bergeron – decided to go even further. They believed a publication was needed, one that would put forward the concerns and issues facing GLBT employees and that would sensitize the other employees in their department to these.

“Ours is the first government department to produce such a document,” Sylvie Giasson told me in a recent conversation. “The department was very supportive of the idea. But for some within the department the idea of bringing the issue of sexual orientation into the workplace was problematic. Why, these people wondered, do we need to talk about our sexual orientation?”

The committee persevered, believing that unless everyone understands the issues facing GLBT employees, then the well-being and productivity of these workers are undermined. Out And About allows any reader to broaden his or her understanding. It counters stereotypes that exist within the workplace.

“Initially,” Giasson said, “we thought we would use a consultant. Then we decided who better than the six of us to speak to issues facing GLBT civil servants. Because we did it in addition to our full-time jobs, it took a bit longer. On the other hand, the three years allowed us to experience firsthand the change in the work environment. People, both straight and gay, have welcomed it.”

The publication tackles such issues as when and whether to be out in the workplace, the stress upon the GLBT employees and how this affects the quality of their work, their relationships with fellow employees and, importantly, their own health. It notes that simple day-to-day procedures – providing an emergency contact, requesting leave for a funeral or changing their name and sex on official records – can place a GLBT person in a precarious position if they are not out at work.

At the same time, it reaches out to the straight employees and to the department by providing key definitions, such as sexual orientation, transgendered and sexual or gender identity and expression. It reiterates that prejudice and stereotype result from misinformation or misunderstanding of GLBT people. It directs all readers to sources and sites where they can find pertinent information. The document encourages people to ask those who are out about their lives, just as they would any of the straight colleagues.

“The example of the Monday morning coffee chat has struck a chord,” Giasson mentioned. “Straight people will talk about their weekend with their girlfriend or boyfriend or their families. Without realizing it, they make their heterosexuality clear. Are they inclusive enough to allow GLBT people to talk about their weekend?”

The document provides a statistic from the 2002 Public Service Employment Survey that found five percent of respondents (or about 700 people) had been the victims of discrimination or harassment at their work due to their sexual orientation. This is a relatively small number when one compares it with the figures from the 2001 GLBT Wellness Survey of Ottawa’s general queer population, in which 38 percent said that they had been subjected to more than three incidents involving verbal abuse, 13 percent threatened with violence and nine percent been victim of a crime. But it may also reflect the reluctance of some to self-identify within the public service survey.

“The document has started to circulate among the GLBT networks within the government departments,” says Giasson. “Other departments have re-quested a copy to put on their website. The local health community centre has requested copies for their course on well-being. We are looking for an internet site to host it.”